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Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Form of In-Bar Entertainment?

Jim Beam and Dos Equis have been quick to embrace the trend

Jim Beam is bringing Samsung Gear headsets to 250 bars in 16 U.S. markets. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Would you strap on an Oculus Rift headset at your favorite bar? In the latest example of how marketers are embracing virtual reality, alcohol brands are taking branded entertainment to a new level with tech-aided events at local watering holes.

Jim Beam, Dos Equis and Fire Eater are all examples of brands that are using technology like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear to win over consumers at the moment when they're most likely—and perhaps under the influence—to try out new liquors, particularly with of-age millennials.

"In this day and age, it's really hard to capture the full undivided attention of your consumer and it's especially hard to capture that in a crowded, busy bar," said Rachel Harris, Jim Beam's U.S. director of brand activation.

Geometry Global just kicked off a campaign promoting Jim Beam Devil's Cut, a bourbon named after part of the bourbon-making process. Typically, a portion of bourbon escapes through the walls of the barrel while it is made—dubbed Angel's Share. Devil's Cut is the portion of bourbon that gets trapped in the barrel.

To show that experience first hand, the brand is setting up Samsung Gear headsets at 250 bars in 16 U.S. markets like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Orlando this year that will be used during 750 sampling events.

"It's like a 3D roller coaster ride through the process," Harris said. Indeed, a minute-long video transports bar goers into a flowing river of bourbon inside of a barrel. The video then swirls folks around to replicate the aging process, ending in eventually being catapulted out of the barrel. Meanwhile, Jim Beam representatives waif a piece of paper soaked in bourbon under people's noses to further hammer home the product.

"The virtual reality piece was a way to add a bunch of shock value and make sure that as they walk away, they're talking about the experience," Harris explained.

The Most Interesting Man in the Bar
For Dos Equis, lead agency Havas Worldwide and experiential shop Mirrorball set up virtual reality activations in 21 bars in eight markets last year as part of a Halloween-themed masquerade campaign.

Participants could try on Oculus Rift headsets to watch a three-minute video showing a party scene with the brand's Most Interesting Man in the World spokesman (played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith).

Sales of Dos Equis shot up 18 percent during the Masquerade campaign, and the live events and online video generated 27 million views.

Jason Musante, a managing director and group executive creative director at Havas Worldwide in New York, said that some people waited in line for three hours to test the VR activation.

"Alcohol brands are often unable to control the environment where they are consumed or purchased," Musante said. "VR offers these brands an opportunity to create a more controlled brand experience and world. That's what drove the thinking behind The Dos Equis Masquerade experience: take people from the bar they are in, to the incredible world of the Most Interesting Man."

A similar thought drove Brown-Forman's decision to set up virtual big top circuses in English bars last year. Working with Critical Mass, the company used Oculus Rift to launch a cinnamon-flavored liquor called Fire Eater.

Can Digital Replace Traditional Beer Marketing?
Besides the obvious headache of regulations and rules that alcohol marketers must heed, this new spin on entertainment-geared advertising makes the brands stand out in the realm of testing new technology. That said, experts don't expect such tactics to replace the coasters, signage and posters that typically plaster bars.

"I don't see it replacing the social side of wanting to be in a bar in the first place," said Mike Woods, a global ecd at Framestore. "As an engaging, entertaining few minutes at your friends' expense, it could be a lot of fun."

Also, there's a potential for pitfalls when using headsets around boozy people, said Vincent Au, vp of experience design at Rokkan.

"I think that VR could be the next form of in-bar entertainment for liquor brands but I hope it isn't, mostly from a personal standpoint due to the risks involved with having folks with a few drinks in them using new VR technology and not being aware of their real-world surroundings," Au said.

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